The Best National Anthems: Introduction

This week “This Week in History” will take a break. In its place, I’ll use the Monday morning post to kick off a new series I’ve been looking forward to for weeks:

Once and for all, I will settle the question, “What’s the best national anthem?”

Singing La Marseillaise
Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle singing his most famous composition, "La Marseillaise"

Later today my Modern Europe class will start a week-long investigation of nationalism in the 19th century. One of the key problems in the history of nationalism is how national identity is constructed. Following Benedict Anderson, the “nation” is a group of people who live as an “imagined community,” not sharing much experience of each other but still identifying with the other members of the nation (achieving what Anderson calls “simultaneity” with them). How does this come about?

Through education, political culture, the writing of history, iconography, shared sacrifice… But perhaps most of all by song. Here’s Anderson:

…there is a special kind of contemporaneous community which language alone suggests — above all in the form of poetry and songs. Take national anthems, for example, sung on national holidays. No matter how banal the words and mediocre the tunes, there is in this singing a moment of simultaneity. At precisely such moments, people wholly unknown to each other utter the same verses to the same melody. The image: unisonance. Singing the Marseillaise, Waltzing Matilda, and Indonesia Raya provide occasions for unisonality, for the echoed physical realization of the imagined community…. How selfless this unisonance feels! If we are aware that others are singing these songs precisely when and where we are, we have no idea who they may be, or even where, out of earshot, they are singing. Nothing connects us all but imagined sound. (Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 149)

By this standard, any anthem that becomes national is powerful, at least for those who buy into the nationalist project. But if it’s possible to speak objectively of such things, surely some national anthems are less banal lyrically or less mediocre melodically than others.

To settle which national anthem is best, I picked fifteen that are either very familiar or have been well regarded by other bloggers who have asked this question (perhaps more from Europe because it’s the birthplace of the national anthem, but including representatives from North and South America, Africa, and Asia), then put them through a two-part test.

First, the anthems: (in case you’d like to check them out before I reveal my rankings, starting Wednesday)

Then, the ranking system…

First, I awarded points to all fifteen finalists on the basis of four categories:

  • Longevity: Anthems that have remained in official usage for longer scored higher (a.k.a. the “They stand the test of time” category). The oldest anthem on the list has been in use since the mid-18th century; the youngest for barely more than a decade.
  • Singability: If Anderson is right, then it’s important that the members of a nation not merely listen to but sing (loudly) along to their anthem. In my judgment, the melody of an anthem shouldn’t have too large a range (going beyond the abilities of most average singers) or too small a range (which is unchallenging and doesn’t push the nation to improve itself). The median score here was 15 semitones; anthems with that range scored highest.
  • Inspiration: How well does an anthem move the members of its nation to strive for greatness? While it may be tempting to look to military performance as the best test of this category, I think I wisely steered clear of that path and instead looked at sports, since, if NBC Sports is to be believed, most world-class athletes are driven primarily by a desire to hear their nation’s anthem played as its flag is raised. Points here for winning Olympic gold medals (measured as a percentage of gold medals available in the years the country competed under that national anthem) and men’s and women’s soccer World Cups.
  • Intangibles: Then I also added or subtracted points for slightly more subjective reasons.

After crunching those numbers, six anthems stood out from the crowd. They were then ranked by the students in the Modern Europe course, on the basis of their melody, lyrics, and how well they served the goals of fostering national unity and purpose.

Starting Wednesday, the results! We’ll run through the honorable mentions quickly, then start counting down the top six.

Read the next post in this series>>


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